I spent a lot of my childhood being equally terrified and enthralled by Steven Speilberg and Roald Dahl. If Dahl wasn't scaring me with images of psychopathic headmistresses and child-eating giants stalking the land, then Speilberg was picking up the slack by chasing me around a kitchen with a velociraptor or making me cry by almost killing E.T. They're bastards, is what I'm getting at and I love them both for it. But when it comes to the seemingly no-brainer success of having Speilberg deliver on a big-screen adaptation of The BFG, among Dahl's most beloved creations, there are one or two asterix; the primary one being that Speilberg's recent form on the kids' movie front has been, well, a bit patchy.
Observe Speilberg's last foray into the arena of the family blockbuster, The Adventures of TinTin, enjoyable enough but rendered soulless by hinky CGI. Or A.I, a bloated mess that was far too cuddly for what it promised. The trouble is that Speilberg seems to have lost his bite a little bit when it comes to the family film. And one thing that Roald Dahl always had was teeth in abundance.
Although, if Speilberg has lost his teeth, then at least his eyes are working as well as ever. The BFG looks incredible, from a London that recalls that of Hook to Giant Country and its inhabitants. That London is where we start, with Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) wandering around her orphanage home at "the witching hour" (about 3am-ish). It's against this classically Speilberg backdrop of dust dancing through silver light in a seemingly enchanted city that Sophie spots The BFG (Mark Rylance) on his nightly mission to blow the dreams he has collected into the heads of children. Fearing exposure, he takes her from her bed to his home in Giant Country, where he lives as the runt of the litter amongst man-eating giants with names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement and, incidentally, a fantastic name for a metal band) and Bloodbottler. Being man-eaters, they make it their business to go out at night eating mans so it becomes Sophie and the BFG's mission to stop them.
Dahl's strength as a children's storyteller was in knowing that kids are both wonderful and bloody terrible in often equal measure. The wonder is something which Speilberg and friends are able to capture brilliantly. The most important of his friends in this regard is Mark Rylance, who injects an incredibly delicate humanity into a 24-foot child kidnapper with the neck of a giraffe and ears like the FA Cup. Along with Rylance's deft and genuinely funny wielding of Dahl's delightful nonsense speak, the motion capture enhances his squinting glee in his interactions with Sophie and his graceful awkwardness as he potters around his house. The film is at its best when The BFG himself is centre stage, such as when he demonstrates how a giant can remain hidden in the rapidly waking streets of a major metropolitan center or introducing Royalty to the delights of "whizpopping".
It's in the "terror" department that the film lacks a little something. I'm not suggesting that we double-down on graphic depictions of "human beans" being eaten alive by giants, but a little of the "mild threat" that the BBFC certification promised might have been nice. Sure, Clement's Fleshlumpeater is certainly an imposing presence but its mainly as a comically brutal foil to the BFG's gentle nature. Scenes depicting the BFG and Sophie hunting dreams or exactly how you'd go about preparing breakfast for a giant may well be spectacular but there never seems to really be anything at stake. We're left to plotlessly meander through the second half to a conclusion that is impressively staged and delivered but feels unearned and empty.
On paper, this really looks like a slam dunk: those ones who brought you E.T (this was the late Melissa Mathison's last script before her untimely death last year) adapting one of the seminal works from the master of anarchic children's storytelling with the special effects to make it look like gold and an incredible cast. But somewhere along the way, Speilberg has softened and given us something charming, gently funny and beautiful but, ultimately, toothless.
3 stars - the bubbles are there, but they're going the wrong way.